What Goes On Behind the Cameras at Home Makeover Shows?

Millions of viewers, eager for a Cinderella story with real estate as the central character, watch televised home renovation shows to see troubled houses transformed into showstoppers.

Story lines on the popular programs vary, but they all sell the same aspirational yet inclusive fantasy: With the help of a team of expert contractors, any house can become beautiful, even with constraints of time and budget. The pandemic, in which both binge-watching and home renovation projects surged, gave these programs an additional boost.

And as the popularity of the shows has grown, so have whispers of incompetence, negligence and shoddy construction. A number of former contestants on such shows say they were promised a dream house, but ended up with a construction nightmare. Court documents reveal that at least a dozen lawsuits, their details shrouded by strict confidentiality agreements, have been settled out of court. Across social media platforms like Instagram, the number of public complaints made online is significantly higher.

In Las Vegas, Mindy and Paul King appeared on “Property Brothers” in 2019, and are currently suing the production company that creates the program for HGTV for fraud, misrepresentation and faulty workmanship, which they say left their home riddled with code violations as well as safety and health hazards.

In North Carolina, Deena Murphy and Tim Sullivan appeared on HGTV’s “Love It or List It” in 2016, then were also sued after suing the producer and contractor of that show said there was a breach of contract.

Bristol Marunde, left, and Aubrey Marunde, hosts of “Flip or Flop Las Vegas” on HGTV, shown in a shot from the show. The home of Billi Dunning and Brent Hawthorne was featured in the first season of the program. After Mr. Dunning and Ms. Hawthorne settled a 2018 suit against the television hosts, they were sued for violating the confidentiality provision of their settlement agreement.

In Nevada, Billi Dunning and Brent Hawthorne, who appeared on “Flip or Flop Las Vegas” on HGTV, were countersued by the program’s hosts after taking the program to court.

And in Chicago, Sharon and Gary Rosier, who appeared on Fox’s “Renovate My Family” in 2004, still live in a home they said was renovated with “fraud” and “negligence,” according to a lawsuit filed in 2005 in Illinois, because, they say, they can’t afford to move elsewhere.

Ms. King, in Las Vegas, said she wanted to appear on “Property Brothers,” led by the twin brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott, because she and her husband were promised access to high-end fixtures and furnishings at bargain rates. But the couple, who are now suing Cineflix Media, the Canadian production company behind the program along with their contractor Villa Construction, said that what they got instead was a house riddled with structural and electrical issues, some of which, they said in court filings, are producing serious health concerns for Ms. King.

“I have not felt good since we started living in the house,” Ms. King said in an interview at her four-bedroom ranch-style house in Las Vegas.

In most cases, homeowners are required to foot the bill for their renovations, and in nearly every contract, they are informed that extra perks, such as free materials and access to experts, come at the discretion of the show’s producers. And if things go wrong, they usually aren’t allowed to publicly complain: Contracts bind homeowners to strict confidentiality, even preventing them (at least theoretically) from speaking about the show to friends or family.

Networks like HGTV purchase distribution rights from the production companies, and celebrity hosts often own a stake in their programs (the Scott brothers acquired brand and intellectual property rights to “Property Brothers” in 2019), but it is the production companies that call the shots on the ground.

In the King’s four-bedroom ranch-style home in Las Vegas, doors do not fit properly into frames, there are plumbing and electrical issues, and an improperly installed bar sink has crashed through its frame.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

As on most home renovation shows, the Kings were mostly kept at arm’s length while a crew worked, then brought back in for a final reveal. But they said that when they were shown the finished product, they immediately saw problems, and were nevertheless instructed to reshoot the ending of the show multiple times — at least four takes, Ms. King said — while they feigned excitement. (Four other former contestants on home renovation shows who have filed suits against production companies, and who were interviewed for this story, relayed similar stories of aggressive coaching.)

Some of the issues detailed in the Kings’ complaint were cosmetic, but others were more serious: Electrical work, their complaint says, was done without proper permitting, and the gas line of the stove was improperly installed. According to a second complaint, the family later learned the dishwasher had been installed without an air gap, which is what keeps contaminated water from seeping back into clean water during a wash cycle.

The Kings contend that the gas line of the stove was improperly installed, and that their dishwasher was installed without an air gap, which is what keeps contaminated water from seeping back into clean. They no longer use either appliance.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

The Kings are now pursuing a Chapter 40 complaint, which is the first step required by Nevada state law in construction disputes, intended to avoid litigation by offering contractors a last chance to make repairs.

The Kings initially asked for $1,477,500 in reparations, and their complaint to the Nevada State Contractors Board listed more than 90 things wrong with their house. After investigating the house in September 2020, however, the contractors board identified only 10 problems, at an estimated repair cost of $94,672, which it ordered the contractor, Villa Construction, to correct. Cineflix maintains that the Kings then denied the contractor access to the home (the Kings dispute this), and in a statement emailed to The New York Times, said the couple were disseminating misleading information.

“We’re trapped. The house is packed full of code violations, so we can’t just bail,” Paul King said.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

“This is an obvious attempt by the Kings to garner attention and financial gain while the matter is still before the courts,” their statement read. “Cineflix and Villa Construction are obligated to respond to the Chapter 40 Notice, which will dictate the next steps. While we dispute a number of the deficiencies, we remain committed to resolving the Chapter 40 claim.”

Drew and Jonathan Scott, who are not named in the Kings’ lawsuit, declined a request to comment.

On May 25, a judge ruled that the case will now proceed to litigation.

HGTV said they “want homeowners who are featured in our series to be happy,” declaring that homeowners are included in the planning process and made aware of who will participate in their renovation, in a statement emailed to The Times. “The business relationship and contractual agreements for the renovations are agreed upon by the homeowners and the contractors,” the statement went on. “When we learn of a business dispute, we encourage the contractors and homeowners to work together to resolve the issue.”

Some of the contestants who file suit discover that legal action can be a double-edged sword. The threat of countersuits hangs heavy.

Deena Murphy and Tim Sullivan appeared on Season 12 of HGTV’s “Love It or List It,” shown in a shot from the show. They sued over alleged faulty workmanship on their North Carolina home and settled, but were then also sued, for libel, slander and product disparagement. 

Some plaintiffs, like Deena Murphy and Tim Sullivan, who appeared on HGTV’s “Love It or List It” in 2016, sued for breach of contract, saying that faulty workmanship had, according to their complaint, “irreparably damaged” their North Carolina home after they spent $140,000 of their own money. According to court documents, they settled, but not before being slapped with a lawsuit themselves, for libel, slander and product disparagement. The case, which went to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, was eventually dismissed. The settlement terms are confidential, and Mr. Sullivan declined a request to be interviewed.

Billi Dunning and Brent Hawthorne, a Nevada couple who settled in a 2018 suit against “Flip or Flop Las Vegas,” were also sued. According to court documents, lawyers for the program’s hosts, Bristol and Aubrey Marunde, said Ms. Dunning and Mr. Hawthorne violated the confidentiality provision of their settlement agreement, in which they were awarded $50,000 plus a repurchase price of about $284,000 for the home in question. Ms. Dunning and Mr. Hawthorne also declined to be interviewed.

In the complaint, in which Bristol and Aubrey Marunde appear as defendants, the Marundes wrote, “Due to the spiteful actions of Plaintiffs, Defendants have suffered irreparable economic and emotional harm to their personal, and professional lives and Plaintiffs have been unjustly enriched by the settlement proceeds paid by Defendants.” Their suit was dismissed by a judge in early March.

Nearly all contestants are required, when signing onto a program, to agree to a strict waiver that prevents them from speaking to the press or posting on social media, about not just the show itself, but also, according to one waiver reviewed by The New York Times, “any nonpublic information or trade secrets obtained or learned in connection with the program.”

“They put the fear of God in you when you do these shows,” Ms. King said.

When it comes to legal disputes between shows and their contestants, what’s promised or put on air is irrelevant, said Ryan Ellis, a lawyer for the Kings. It all comes down to the contract.

“A contract states that certain things are supposed to be done. And production or no production, if those things aren’t done, then we have an issue,” Mr. Ellis said.

Some contestants say they didn’t understand their contracts, however, and weren’t given ample time to review them before being required to sign.

Sharon and Gary Rosier, who appeared on “Renovate My Family,” a one-season Fox TV reality show in 2004, contended that “fraud, gross incompetence and negligence” were involved in the renovation work on their Chicago-area house, and that the contractor on their home, who was hired by the show’s producers, “breached its most basic obligations ensuring that work was done correct,” according to their complaint.

Ms. Rosier signed on to the show, she said, because she was promised an attached garage so that her son Steven, a quadriplegic, could be wheeled from the car directly into the house and avoid a snowy ramp during Chicago winters.

But Ms. Rosier, who works in collections for UPS, contends that she was sent the contract while at work and told she only had one hour to sign.

Her lawsuit alleges multiple problems with the construction. While filming the family’s episode, which aired in 2004, a crew from “Renovate My Family” leveled the family’s barn and backyard and created bedrooms for the family’s two daughters in the home’s basement, where they flooded when it rained. The new washing machine had no drain; oak cabinets were swapped for pressboard.

The lawsuit claims the family’s aboveground pool, with a wraparound deck built three years earlier by Mr. Rosier, was replaced by an in-ground pool the family couldn’t afford to heat. The crew also took a bulldozer and dug up the family’s pet cemetery where they had buried their animals.

According to the complaint, the attached garage for Steven was never built.

“When everything goes bad, they’re not there for you, and then they’re like, well, you signed the contract,” she said. “But we didn’t know what we were signing.”

The Rosiers’ lawsuit contended the home was left “virtually uninhabitable” and requiring repairs in excess of $250,000. It was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Devin McRae, a lawyer in Los Angeles who specializes in the entertainment industry, said that damages in most construction lawsuits are for whatever it would cost to make required repairs, and not much more. “You’re probably not talking about seven figures. The fight is probably in the low hundreds,” he said.

Rocket Science Laboratories, who were producers on the show and named in the suit, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009 and liquidated their assets. A representative from FOX Broadcasting declined a request for comment.

The Rosiers, who still live in that house, said they have yet to raise the required funds to fix the damage.

Mr. King, an executive recruiter, said he and his wife are fortunate to be able to afford the legal fees and other financial losses of their situation. But they believe their house is unsafe, and what they can’t do is move.

“We’re trapped. The house is packed full of code violations, so we can’t just bail,” he said. “What they did was build a really nice studio to shoot their show.”

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Susan C. Beachy contributed research.